Learning to Puppeteer for Kommilitonen!


Puppets are having a moment right now (think of the phenomenal success of War Horse across the street at Lincoln Center Theater), and Juilliard is part of the frenzy. On November 16, with the U.S. premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s opera Kommilitonen!, which was co-commissioned by Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music in London, student opera singers will double as puppeteers. 

Laetitia de Beck Spitzer, left, and Laura Mixter work together to play a Red Army officer in Juilliard Opera’s production of Kommilitonen!

(Photo by Juilliard Journal)

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The opera recounts three tales of student uprising (see “An Opera for Students, About Students”), and in the third of these stories, of students during China’s Cultural Revolution, life-size Bunraku puppets, marionettes, and various enormous body parts carried around on sticks play key roles.

“It’s quirky. It’s supposed to be dark funny,” said first-year master’s mezzo-soprano Rachael Wilson, the voice, face, and feet of a marionette Red Army officer that is half her height. Cozying up behind her, master’s student Martin Bakari mimed the hands. Wilson, Bakari, and four other students were at a crash puppeteering course for the students—many of whose puppet experience hadn’t extended much beyond the days of Lamb Chop and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. They were being guided by Mark Downs, the co-artistic director of Blind Summit Theatre, which created the puppets for the opera’s world premiere, in London last March. 

Part of the idea behind using the puppets in the first place was that for this section of the opera, the most stylized and satirical of the three stories, replacing a human with something so unnatural, like a giant body part at the end of a pole, seemed somehow—natural. “At the end of the Cultural Revolution, Madame Mao started this whole new art form that was very much politicized and sort of told a fantasy story of Communist China,” Downs told The Journal. It was that sort of style, he added, that Kommilitonen! librettist and director David Pountney borrowed for the Chinese story.

“It’s really sinister,” said first-year master’s mezzo Laura Mixter, who plays another officer. (That said, she commented that her costume for this opera was only the second weirdest one she has worn: in Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias last year, she wore sparkly underwear.) Mixter was finding it surprisingly freeing to work with puppets. They “force us to streamline our gestures so that they’re readable, and they’re a fantastic dramatic device,” she said. “They highlight the humanity of Wu’s parents, who are tortured and killed—and the inhumanity of the officers, whose comic nature intensifies the humiliation Wu endures in betraying his parents.”

While he’s been teaching puppeteering for 14 years, Downs said that Kommilitonen! marked the first time he has ever had to train opera singers to use puppets. Though the singers’ acting and movement training help in many ways, difficulties do arise. For one thing, he said, puppeteers “need to look at the puppet and opera singers need to look at the conductor.” And though opera singers appear to not make their breathing obvious, puppeteers try to do the exact opposite. The puppets’ movements are organic and not as planned out as one might expect, Downs said; when there are as many as three people operating a puppet, using breathing motions together really helps. “We teach that the way a group of people can know what each other’s thinking is to learn to breathe together and to learn how that breath relates to the movement,” he added. “Our goal is that the people doing the puppet learn to do the puppetry, and then you can direct the puppet like an actor.” 

The puppets themselves were all designed and built by Downs’s partner at Blind Summit, Nick Barnes. Canvas, foam, wood, and other lightweight materials are used to create the characters, which represent a variety of puppet types. The Bunraku puppets, representing the parents in the Chinese section of the opera, are the largest and most sophisticated of these types. In Bunraku, a traditional Japanese theater style that dates to the 17th century, puppeteers are supposed to be seen, though they always wear black to make themselves less conspicuous. The simplest puppets in the opera are the massive hands, feet, and glasses that are attached to the end of sticks that the singers use to operate them. They’re larger than life, and the feeling obtained from them—and from all of the puppets—is bound to create a spectacle. 

Puppeteering is likely not what opera students expected to be doing when they got to Juilliard, but like all performing artists, their job is creating new life on the stage. “Opera singers doing puppetry is a brilliant thing,” Downs said.